Recently, a colleague of mine had worked with an internationally renowned combat athlete to manage his weight loss prior to a major competition. My colleague, a doctor of physical therapy and performance expert, was taken by the reaction of this athlete to the goals my colleague had put in place for weight management. The goals, meant to give the athlete helpful direction, became an obsession: constant weight checks, heightened anxiety and eventually even physical symptoms like fatigue and constipation.
I had worked with this athlete too, in a mental conditioning role -- and with many others like him, who would often turn data points into unhealthy obsessions. Those who are highly coachable and rigidly perfectionistic tend to fall into this category. The data points -- lose 10 pounds by next month, consume 64 ounces of water daily -- trigger a desire to meet them with perfection.
Recently, I worked with an athlete to whom I introduced the mental skill of visualization. I asked him to spend 10 minutes each night visualizing particular scenes in his sport. However, the intense focus he placed on ensuring he completed precisely 10 minutes completely got in the way of him deriving any benefit from the practice.
Consider another popular data point, a gold standard for many people: walking 10,000 steps per day. The premise is that quantifying a particular health goal will offer helpful guidance to those seeking to make healthy living a priority in their lives, that having a fitness tracker to offer objective feedback will positively motivate them to make changes.
But can't we see how, at least for some people, fanatically checking our steps may get in the way, in some way? Tracking our steps may effectively make the task of achieving health a chore -- and may make the 10,000 mark seem more distant and unattainable than reality would suggest, just as a marathoner's decision to keep looking at how much farther she has to run makes the distance seem longer. Constant focus on the end result strips our attention away from what we're actually doing in the moment. And shouldn't the emphasis on being healthy be on simply "being" healthy and focusing on the activities that move us there?
Most emotional experiences, like happiness, are nearly impossible to attain if we're overly focused on feeling that emotion. We can't feel happy with one eye on living and another on living's effect on our happiness. Physical health works in a similar way: One eye on your morning outdoor walk and another on your pedometer makes "feeling healthy" more challenging -- not only because of the stress we place on ourselves to make it to 10,000, but think of the beauty around us we're neglecting to pay attention to when our eyes are glancing down at a digital screen every eight seconds.
Are 10,000 Steps a Meaningful Goal?
There are also questions as to whether 10,000 steps is even the right figure. It's been discovered that the origins of the number go back to 1965, when a Japanese company made a device named Manpo-kei, which translates to "10,000 steps meter." It began as a marketing tool. Plus, recent research suggest that mortality rates progressively improve before leveling off at approximately 7,500 steps per day. Although there must be something more gratifying about reaching a milestone with more zeros: 100 pushups is more satisfying than doing 95; 1,000 crunches feels better to proclaim than 986 and 10,000 steps sounds better than 7,500 -- even though doing the lesser amount of all of these activities will derive nearly identical health benefits.
This is all reminiscent of another 10,000 figure guideline: In his book "Outliers," Malcolm Gladwell has popularly claimed that 10 years or 10,000 hours of deliberate practice yields expert or elite athletic performance. However, the creator of this figure, social psychologist Anders Ericsson, did not intend to make it so formulaic or rigidly quantifiable. Ericsson's research grew out of his work with violinists in the 1990s, in which it was found that expert violinists began practicing at 5 years of age and non-expert violinists began practicing later in life. The original work had nothing to do with sports at all.
Immerse Yourself in the Activity
An important guideline, then, is to immerse ourselves in particular activities -- any or all types of physical movement and training -- without getting mired in statistics and "needing" to reach a particular figure to claim success. There isn't a single elite athlete in existence who tracks the cumulative number of hours practiced in real time; attention is typically set on personal improvement and goal achievement.
Simply, identify activities in your life that are meaningful and require physical exertion. You can likely log more items here than you may initially think. Think gardening, shopping, walking your dog, yardwork, housework, formal workout classes, playing with your children, among others. Be open to the actual experiences in front of you, in the moment you're currently in -- without only relying on data points on a fitness tracker -- as viable ways of improving health.
Be open also to new experiences. Especially as we age, the introduction of new stimuli assists with memory retention, learning and general fitness. My father-in-law has begun pickle-balling; my mother has taken on a side gig as a fisherwoman on a charter boat, catching striped bass and bluefish. The passion each brings to their new craft motivates them to move more. Ultimately, the question must be "will this be enjoyable?" rather than "will this get me closer to 10,000?"
Greg Chertok, M.Ed., began writing for U.S. News in 2015, covering health, wellness and the psychology of performance and exercise. Greg is head player development consultant for Telos Sport Psychology Coaching in New York, and has over a decade of experience counseling and developing mental toughness training programs for athletes and coaches of all levels, including youths, professionals and Olympians.
Greg has been featured as a sport and exercise psychology expert on NPR's Morning Edition, SiriusXM's "Doctor Radio"and Healthradio's "Sports Medicine & Fitness Show." He's also served as an expert media source for publications including Reuters, ESPN.com, The Wall Street Journal, Outside and Runner's World. He received his M.Ed. in counseling from Boston University, where he specialized in sport and exercise psychology. While at Tufts University as an undergraduate, Greg captained the baseball team and finished his career as an ESPN The Magazine Academic Regional All-American and a New England College All-Star.
He currently co-owns and operates a youth summer sports academy called Pitch by Pitch Camps in Congers, New York. The academy is one of the area's larger specialty day camps that features both physical and mental skills training for 6 to 16-year-old athletes. He is a certified mental performance consultant through the Association for Applied Sport Psychology.
To learn more about Greg, visit his website or follow him on Twitter.